A Closer Look at Healthy Fast Food

A closer look at healthy fast food

Fast food typically isn’t a very healthy option for our meals. We know this.

If given the opportunity, it’s almost always best to make a different choice than to make a quick stop at the drivethru. But sometimes you may not have much of a choice. And to be honest, as long as the rest of your diet is on point and consists of mostly whole, fresh foods, then it’s fine to have a cheeseburger and fries from your favorite fast food joint now and then.

But what about healthy fast food? That’s a thing now, right?

You’ve no doubt noticed fast food joints “catch on” to the fact that their normal offerings aren’t associated with healthy choices. In an effort to combat this, many fast food companies now offer alternative, “health-conscious” options on their menus.

Is this a genuine effort to help provide you with healthier options? Or is it a way for the fast food giants to take advantage of the “trend” of eating healthy? After all, if they can break down their perceived image of being associated with junk food and diabetes, doesn’t that make their customer base more likely to eat there? Or maybe these companies have gained a conscience after all and are truly acting out of altruistic reasons. Perhaps they’re not motivated by any of these factors but simply see the writing on the wall and are adapting their business model to survive in a future where people eat less traditional fast food?

If it sounds like I’m going back and forth, I am. There aren’t clear cut answers to these questions and I don’t have any inside information about it that you don’t, so I’ll let you make your own decisions.

What I can do, however, is spend some time breaking down some typical alternative options at popular fast food places to see if they really fit the bill as advertised. Is healthy fast food really healthy? Let’s take a closer look.

Below I’ve listed three different non traditional menu options from three of the most popular fast food chains: McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Taco Bell.

How to eat healthy at a fast food restaurant

At least they’re not pretending to be something they’re not.

(I wanted to include KFC on this list but the only menu item that came close to meeting my requirements was the side of green beans, and no one is going to KFC to order a side of green beans. Literally every main menu item there is fried.)

So let’s take a look at the actual nutritional information for these items (which, by the way, you can always find online on each company’s website) and see how they stack up.

I’ve pulled out what I consider to be the most pertinent information for our purposes: total calories, grams of fat and saturated fat, and grams of sugar. I’ve also listed all of the ingredients that are some form of added sugar. If you’re not familiar with why we might be interested in this particular information, head over here to see a breakdown of the most recent nutritional recommendations, which is mainly what I’m basing this article off.

Note: These items weren’t picked to be compared to one another. In fact, I intentionally selected three very different foods. As such, this is not meant at all to be a “where should I get my fast food from” article. A giant chicken salad is going to have you feeling way more full than a small cup of fruit and yogurt, no matter where you get it from. The point of this article is to help you make informed decisions and educate you on some typical menu items that are viewed as healthy alternatives.

McDonald’s Fruit and Yogurt Parfait

Is fast food healthy?

Still no word on where to find the McDonald’s that serves parfaits in glasses on marble countertops.

Calories: 150
Fat: 2g
Saturated Fat: 1g
Sugar: 23g
Added Sugar Ingredients: Sugar (twice), Fructose, Brown Sugar, Corn Syrup

The Good: From a nutrient standpoint, this is not a terrible choice, particularly as far as fast food breakfast options go. It uses real fruit (the strawberries contain something called konjac flour, which I admit I had to look up and is apparently used as a gelatin) and dairy, which you aren’t going to find in your hotcakes and bacon plate. Other than some preservatives for the yogurt, most of the ingredients are about as “natural” as you’re going to find at a fast food joint, which is another plus. It’s also low in saturated fat, something that is unusual for most fast foods.

The Bad: The parfait is very high in sugar, specifically added sugars. In fact, most of the calories in this item come from some form of sugar. That’s not the natural stuff from the fruit either, I checked. Sixty-nine percent of the sugar in this food has been added in some form (but kudos to McDonald’s for helping me calculate this by allowing you to break down the food by each main ingredient).

Wendy’s Apple Pecan Chicken Salad (Full Size)

Alternative fast food options

Dave goes green with the Apple Pecan Chicken Salad

Calories: 570
Fat: 25g
Saturated Fat: 8g
Sugar: 40g
Added Sugar Ingredients: Sugar (5 times), Pomegranate Juice Concentrate, Orange Juice Concentrate, Maltodextrin, Lactose

The Good: Well, you can order a half size of this and it will cut all the numbers in half. Other than that, it’s got a whole bunch of protein (38g) if you are looking for more of that in your diet (you may or may not be). Lastly, any meal that provides you nutrients from a combination of fruit and vegetables (even if it is mostly just different forms of lettuce) is usually a win.

The Bad: 40 grams of sugar. FORTY. IN A SALAD. Did I mention that almost all of that is added in nine different ways (and I didn’t even count the honey in there as an added sugar)? And this isn’t one of those “remove the fat and add sugar to make it taste better” deals, because after all that sugar you’re still looking at 25 grams (about 225 calories) worth of fat. From a strictly calorical standpoint, this beast adds up to more calories than a Dave’s Single cheeseburger.

Side note: The full ingredient information on the Wendy’s website was a bit harder to find than the others. I had to dig for a separate nutrition and ingredient information page rather than pulling it straight from the menu items.

Taco Bell’s Power Menu Burrito (Vegetarian)

Eating healthy fast food

I didn’t know Taco Bell had a “Power Menu” but this is on it.

Calories: 430
Fat: 18g
Saturated Fat: 6g
Sugar: 5g
Added Sugar Ingredients: Sugar (twice), Dextrose, Molasses, Maltodextrin

The Good: Sugar has been a common theme in this article so far, and this menu item does a pretty good job of staying low in it. Even the added sugars were typically way down on the ingredient lists. You’re getting some quality protein with the black beans making up a good portion of the burrito, and the pico de gallo and guacamole provide at least some secondary source of nutrients.

The Bad: There are a ton of ingredients in this item. Like a ton. This includes lots of preservatives, thickeners, anti-caking agents, and other things that I won’t even guess at. So despite this appearing to be a “fresher” item on the menu, it’s not. This is also a great example of the fact that saturated fat doesn’t always just come from meats. We’ve got 6 grams of it here and no meat in sight (it’s most likely coming from the cheese and avocado ranch sauce). This isn’t a wild amount but just be aware that you vegetarians aren’t free from this type of fat.

So what do you think? Is healthy fast food actually good for us?

Comparatively, it may be better than many other options on the menu. That power burrito would likely come down a few notches if it included some of that fine Taco Bell ground beef, and despite the Wendy’s salad being similar in calories to some burgers and sandwiches on the menu, it’s still way lower in saturated fat than those items.

But choosing the healthiest item on a fast food menu is kind of like choosing the cleanest pig in the sty (I don’t know where I channeled that one from, help). They’re all still pretty dirty (HAD TO FINISH IT SORRY).

There are some decent choices you can make, but don’t make a habit of making decent choices. Problems arise when you convince yourself that you’re eating well, even when deep down you know you’re not. “Healthy fast food” falls into this category.

Remember, stick to a diet that is mostly whole, fresh foods with lots of variety and you likely won’t have to worry about a trip to the local fast food joint once in a while. Even that poor, lonesome KFC and its never-ordered green beans.

Other articles you might like:

Simplify Your Nutrition in 3 Easy Steps

9 Steps to Eating Healthier

6 Foods You Think Are Healthy (But Really Aren’t)